Category Archives: Bird conservation

“North with the Spring” #8: Land of Audubon

Fulvous Whistling-Ducks flush in Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Fulvous Whistling-Ducks flush in Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By Bruce Beehler

12 April 2015, Blog #8 of my North with the Spring journey:

From the south coast of Louisiana, I drove north to West Feliciana Parish to visit forests managed by Georgia-Pacific Corporation. In this region, I could combine history with ornithology: visiting historic Civil War battlements from the 1863 Siege of Port Hudson and the site where John James Audubon painted 32 of his Birds of America plates.

I met with two Georgia-Pacific representatives to tour the company’s forest reserve. The southern sector of their site is now lush oak forest on the east bank of the Mississippi River: prime habitat for migrant songbirds.

The day we toured the woodland, the faunal highlight, though, was a pair of very large and brightly patterned Eastern Box Turtles that hung out in the trail leading to the Confederate earthworks.

An Eastern Box Turtle at a forest reserve in Port Hudson, La. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

An Eastern Box Turtle at a forest reserve in Port Hudson, La. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Singing for the Ghosts

Summer Tanagers and Hooded Warblers were noisy in spite of the thick fog. Of course, resident Carolina Wrens and Northern Cardinals also were common here, and small White-throated Sparrow flocks worked the edges of the dark thickets.

It was cool and damp and even though some birds were singing, one could feel the ghosts of fierce conflict that took place here.

Despite the fog, Hooded Warblers were noisy. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Despite the fog, Hooded Warblers were noisy. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Audubon’s Inspiration

The following morning, I bicycled over to Oakley Plantation, just south of St. Francisville. The drive to the 1799 plantation house is hemmed in by giant loblolly pines and oaks—misty and majestic.

The woods were filled with singing birds: Hooded, Kentucky, and Pine Warblers; Summer Tanagers, Great Crested Flycatchers, and the flutelike notes of the Wood Thrush. Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers called out from the mists.

Audubon painted many of his famous Birds of America plates, including the Swallow-tailed Kite and the Pine Warbler, at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville, La. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Audubon painted many of his famous Birds of America plates, including the Swallow-tailed Kite and the Pine Warbler, at Oakley Plantation in St. Francisville, La. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Along the Pearl River

My next stop was in central Mississippi, at more than 2,000 woodland and wetland acres that Georgia-Pacific manages under the Wildlife Habitat Council’s Wildlife at Work program.

Here I watched Anhingas soaring over the wetlands, a rookery of Great Egrets, and abundant Indigo Buntings. Alligators patrolled some of the freshwater ponds. To the east of the property flowed the Pearl River, whose watershed harbored Ivory-billed Woodpeckers into the 20th century. I have a soft spot for these Ivory-billed sites!

Anhingas, with their black and white

Anhingas, with their black and white “piano key” feathers, are always a joy to see. Photo by Jill Nightingale/Shutterstock.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #7: Migration Heating Up in Louisiana

The woods were filled with Summer Tanagers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The woods were filled with Summer Tanagers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By Bruce Beehler

12 April 2015, Blog #7 of my North with the Spring journey:

A Stunning Coastal Wetland

A few days back, I drove 300 miles from Mad Island, Texas, up around the curve of the Gulf Coast to Grand Chenier, Louisiana—site of Rockefeller Wildlife Refuge, a stunning coastal wetland.

My host was refuge ornithologist Samantha Collins, who graciously made the resources of the refuge available for my visit.

The refuge oversees use of the nearby private Nunez Woods, which acts as a critical stop-over habitat for migratory songbirds arriving from their perilous journey north across the Gulf of Mexico.

Nunez Woods is a chenier oak woodland about a mile north of the Gulf. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Nunez Woods is a chenier oak woodland about a mile north of the Gulf. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Conserving the Phenomena of Migration

I met with the banding team from Professor Frank Moore’s lab at the University of Southern Mississippi. Banding birds can help us better understand migration and inform conservation measures to protect birds from such threats as habitat loss.

Keegan Tranquillo, Shawn Sullivan, and Lauren Granger manage 30 mist-nets strategically set in the interior of the chenier woodland to band and monitor songbird migrants. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Keegan Tranquillo, Shawn Sullivan, and Lauren Granger manage 30 mist-nets strategically set in the interior of the chenier woodland to band and monitor songbird migrants. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

A Spectacle of Colorful Birds

I arrived just as things were starting to heat up. Moore’s team trapped more than 120 birds in the morning hours, before heavy rains closed the operation.

We were witnessing the start of the high season for songbird migration. I observed more than 40 species in a spectacle of songs and color as birds moved around the woods.

Unstable weather forced the birds down into our little chenier woodland. If the weather had been fair with southerly winds, many of these birds probably would have continued flying north. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Unstable weather forced the birds down into our little chenier woodland. If the weather had been fair with southerly winds, many of these birds probably would have continued flying north. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Songbirds Traveling North

Hooded and Kentucky Warblers joined small feeding flocks with Wood and Swainson’s Thrushes. A single adult male Cerulean Warbler spent several hours in a patch of oaks near the woodland edge. And the nets produced another half-dozen species of warblers, including the hard-to-see Worm-eating Warbler.

The team banded this Swainson’s Warbler during a morning filled with many migratory bird species. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The team banded this Swainson’s Warbler during a morning filled with many migratory bird species. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Trees Bearing Blue Fruit

The most remarkable phenomenon of all was the blue-and-brown flock of Indigo Buntings and Blue Grosbeaks.

The shimmering blue of the male buntings and the richer, darker blue of the grosbeaks created a remarkable sight: like blue fruit scattered through the branches. This was the first time I had seen these two iconic blue birds associating with each other.

There were more than 50 Indigo Buntings and at least a dozen Blue Grosbeaks. I followed this colorful flock for almost an hour. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

There were more than 50 Indigo Buntings and at least a dozen Blue Grosbeaks. I followed this colorful flock for almost an hour. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Yellow-billed Cuckoos, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Acadian Flycatchers, and scores of White-eyed Vireos made the woods vibrate with birdlife. In spring, each day brings new surprises.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak was just one of many delights I saw at Nunez Woods. Photo by Jane Gulbrand/Shutterstock.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak was just one of many delights I saw at Nunez Woods. Photo by Jane Gulbrand/Shutterstock.

 


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #6: Birds of the Beach

Wilson’s Plover is a beach nesting bird found on the Bolivar Peninsula.  Houston Audubon in partnership with ABC is working to conserve these and other beach nesting birds. Photo by Chuck Tague.

Wilson’s Plover is a beach nesting bird found on the Bolivar Peninsula. Houston Audubon in partnership with ABC is working to conserve these and other beach nesting birds. Photo by Chuck Tague.

By Bruce Beehler

11 April 2005, Blog #6 of my North with the Spring journey:

Although I ventured down to the Gulf Coast to welcome the neotropical migrant songbirds, I have not been ignoring the other wonders of this bird-rich realm including Black Skimmers, Sandwich Terns, and many other species.

Bolivar Peninsula – A Bird-rich Realm

I recently visited with American Bird Conservancy’s Kacy Ray on the beaches of the Bolivar Peninsula in Texas, to see the birds she is working on and to better understand the great bird conservation work being done on the beaches of the Gulf.

I had learned of Kacy’s work while working on Gulf issues for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, so I was excited to meet her during high season for beach nesting birds.

Kacy-and-Bruce

I met with Kacy Ray at Bolivar Flats. ABC has worked with Houston Audubon for the past four years to implement important conservation measures for these vulnerable birds. Photo courtesy of Bruce Beehler.

Partnerships to Benefit Birds

ABC partners with local organizations and field teams in states across the Gulf Coast to address threats to Wilson’s Plover, Snowy Plover, Black Skimmer, and Least Tern.

These lovely birds make their nests right in the sand above the high tide line and thus are vulnerable to beach-goers, unleashed dogs, motorized vehicles on the beach, and nest predators such as raccoons, coyotes, and gulls.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Kristen Vale and Stephanie Bilodeau, ABC-Houston Audubon Shorebird Technicians, and Peter Deichmann of Houston Audubon weigh, measure and band Snowy Plovers on East Beach in an effort to monitor and conserve the declining populations of these species. Photos by Aditi Desai.

Fostering Bird Stewardship

Human disturbance can be remedied with a few key actions like fencing breeding sites, putting up educational signage, and training local volunteer bird stewards to look out for nesting areas during the breeding period.

Bird stewards spend busy weekends and holidays educating the public about beach-nesting birds and steering them clear of nesting areas.

Fencing off nesting sites and placing signs around the area helps increase awareness to protect these diminutive birds from beach-goers. Photo by Kacy Ray.

Fencing off nesting sites and placing signs around the area helps increase awareness to protect these diminutive birds from beach-goers. Photo by Kacy Ray.

Seeing Plovers Decades Later

For birders such as myself, seeing a Wilson’s Plover or a Snowy Plover provides a real charge. These species are common now only in a few places like Bolivar Peninsula and the Gulf Coast of Florida, where there is an abundance of habitat.

Nesting in open, unprotected areas, beach nesting birds like Snowy Plovers face many challenges in protecting their eggs and young. Photo by Kacy Ray.

Nesting in open, unprotected areas, beach nesting birds like Snowy Plovers face many challenges in protecting their eggs and young. Photo by Kacy Ray.

Admiration from a Distance

Beach nesting birds have been in decline for several decades, but with the proper interventions, the most common types of disturbance can be reduced in critical locations, giving the populations a chance to rebound.

Seeing these plovers gives one a special feeling, knowing how infrequently we ever get a chance to spend time with them.

Thanks to the hard work of people like Kacy, Kristen, Stephanie, and the many partner organizations they work with, these birds will be around for the next generation of birders to admire from a respectful distance.

The day I spent out on the Bolivar Peninsula with Kacy, Stephanie and Kristen was the first time I had seen Wilson’s Plovers and Snowy Plovers for several decades.

The day I spent out on the Bolivar Peninsula with Kacy, Stephanie, and Kristen was the first time I had seen Wilson’s Plovers and Snowy Plovers for several decades. Photo courtesy of Bruce Beehler.


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

Mysterious Millerbird: Undercover Footage of Laysan’s Little Songbirds

Millerbird by Robby Kohley

The critically endangered Millerbird on Laysan Island, Hawai’i. Photo by Robby Kohley

by Megan Dalton

Since intensive monitoring of the translocated Millerbird population on Laysan came to an end last fall, I’ve been wrapping up some office work which has included reviewing photos and videos from my two field seasons on-island.

Video clips of endangered Millerbirds and Laysan Finches obtained from a motion-activated trail camera were among my favorite things to revisit. Because of its ability to record footage in the absence of human observers, the trail cameras allowed us to capture some informative and amusing videos that I wanted to share with you.

Two important things to note: We were able to identify many individual Millerbirds on video by their unique color band combination. Also, in order to minimize disturbance to their nesting activity, trail cameras were set up near nests only after chicks had fledged.

A Closer Look at Millerbird Behavior

The first video is a short collection of clips showing Millerbirds singing, foraging, feeding fledglings, and collecting nest material. Toward the end, you will see a clip of a Millerbird ‘cannibalizing’ its own nest.

Nest cannibalizing is when a breeding pair removes nesting material from a nest constructed during a previous nesting attempt and incorporates the material into a new nest. While this Millerbird behavior was known from past observations, it was exciting to capture on video.

A closer look at known Millerbird behavior. Video captured by Megan Dalton and edited by Greg Joder.

Caught in the Act! New Behaviors on Camera

The trail cameras caught a previously unknown behavior exhibited by both Millerbirds and Laysan Finches. We discovered that the territorial Millerbird pairs are not the only ones dismantling their previously constructed nests: Millerbirds from neighboring territories, and even Laysan Finches, were taking material from these nests too!

Also, it was not uncommon to see footage of neighboring Millerbirds perch on another pair’s nest momentarily when the resident pair was absent and appear to examine it inquisitively, almost as if they were scrutinizing or admiring its construction.

A previously unknown behavior caught on camera. Video captured by Megan Dalton and edited by Greg Joder.

Humorous Moments

Among the many videos of Millerbirds and finches going about their usual business were some clips that made us laugh. The final video is a compilation of humorous and endearing moments that includes clumsy fledglings, finches nibbling on almost everything in sight, and a very enthusiastically sunbathing Millerbird.

Maybe it is because we worked so closely with these birds that they so easily amuse us, or perhaps it is because we had very limited entertainment options out on Laysan, but we hope you enjoy these clips as much as we did.

They provide a look at the personal lives of Laysan’s new Millerbirds, a somewhat different perspective on a project that stands out as one of Hawaiʻi’s outstanding bird conservation success stories.

Humorous moments. Video captured and edited by Megan Dalton.

A huge thanks to friend Greg Joder who lent me his computer and helped me with the video editing process.


Megan Dalton is from Salt Lake City, Utah, and has worked as an avian field biologist for several years on both the mainland and in Hawai’i. She just finished working on Midway Atoll, and is beginning another job studying Micronesian Megapodes in Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.

“North with the Spring” #5: Migrants on Mad Island & More

Scarlet Tanager was one of the species that quickly filled a tree with color on Monday morning, along with Myrtle Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, and Red-eyed Vireo. The migration had started! Photo by Brian Lasenby/Shutterstock.

Scarlet Tanager was one of the species that quickly filled a tree with color on Monday morning, along with Myrtle Warbler, Black-and-White Warbler, and Red-eyed Vireo. The migration had started! Photo by Brian Lasenby/Shutterstock.

By Bruce Beehler

5 April 2015, Blog #5 of my North with the Spring journey:

On Easter Sunday I was fortunate enough to celebrate a festive mid-day dinner outdoors at the Boy Scout Woods, on High Island, Texas.

The group of about 30 birders was celebrating the year’s work of the many volunteers of the Houston Audubon Society, which operates this wonderful reserve visited by thousands every year from all over the country.

(They also work closely with American Bird Conservancy to conserve beach-nesting birds on the Texas coast.)

Houston Audubon is a leading conservation force in this area. Conservation Technician Kristen Vale had just banded Snowy Plovers on nearby East Beach—a joint effort with American Bird Conservancy's "Save Gulf Birds" program. Photo by Aditi Desai.

Houston Audubon is a leading conservation force in this area. Conservation Technician Kristen Vale had just banded Snowy Plovers on nearby East Beach—a joint effort with American Bird Conservancy’s “Save Gulf Birds” program. Photo by Aditi Desai.

We were joined by the “paterfamilias” of bird tours, Victor Emanuel, and world-famous wildlife artist Robert Bateman and his family. It was wonderful to hear these two great personages recount evocative stories of Alaska and New Guinea and other exotic natural places around the world.

Myrtle Warblers were arriving in groups to make use of the reserve for resting and feeding. Photo by Elliotte Rusty Harold/Shutterstock.

Myrtle Warblers were arriving in groups to make use of the reserve for resting and feeding. Photo by Elliotte Rusty Harold/Shutterstock.

The songbirds were quiet on Sunday but started to pick up on Monday, where a single tree at the reserve edge quickly produced three Scarlet Tanagers, five Myrtle Warblers, a Black-and-White Warbler, and a Red-eyed Vireo. The migration has started!

My Migration to Matagorda Bay

Late Monday morning I packed up my kit at the High Island RV Park and headed southwest down the Bolivar Peninsula. My destination: the 7,000-acre coastal prairie reserve owned and managed by the Nature Conservancy on Matagorda Bay.

The wildflowers in Texas are nothing short of spectacular. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The wildflowers in Texas are nothing short of spectacular. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Seven thousand acres is a lot of Texas coastal prairie—a habitat that is now in short supply (as with most natural prairies). It is flat, open, and spectacular, and it is filled with birds of many varieties.

Annually, this is the Christmas Bird Count site with the highest species total in the entire United States.

Spring Fever on Mad Island, Texas

Spring is the best time for birds at this Preserve. There are the last of the wintering birds hanging on, various local migrant birds arriving to breed locally, and the many neotropical migrants passing through on their way northward.

I was fortunate to spend time this past week with Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which conducts a bird banding project here in a coastal thicket that looks out onto Matagorda Bay. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

I was fortunate to spend time this past week with Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which conducts a bird banding project here in a coastal thicket that looks out onto Matagorda Bay. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center conducts a bird banding project here in a coastal thicket that looks out onto Matagorda Bay, sheltered by the long sandy Matagorda Peninsula.

Bird-banding on the Front Line

This is the absolute front line in documenting each spring’s initial northward movement of migrant songbirds coming across the Gulf of Mexico. There is no more southerly coastal banding project to detect avian migratory movements approaching our shores.

So far, the Mad Island Team has documented about 40 species of Neotropical songbird migrants dropping into the little patch of coastal scrub where the mist-nets are placed. The species include Indigo Bunting, Blue Grosbeak, and Hooded, Kentucky, and Swainson’s Warblers.

The Team is still waiting for the “big push” and perhaps a first coastal fall-out of the season, when northerly winds and/or rain and fog knock down large numbers of birds, who head for the safety of coastal woodlands like the little scrub patch where this intrepid group is banding every day.

They have to be intrepid—facing strong winds, sun, swarming mosquitoes, coral snakes, and diamondback rattlesnakes. There are long days that start before dawn, which sometimes bring the excitement of new avian arrivals—or instead the boredom of empty nets.

Ducks and More on Mad Island

Since I got to Mad Island, I have also visited three private wetlands not far from here, with waterfowl and wetland experts from Ducks Unlimited (DU).

Ducks are not the only species to benefit from Ducks Unlimited’s conservation work. The Yellow-crowned Night-heron is another. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Ducks are not the only species to benefit from Ducks Unlimited’s conservation work. The Yellow-crowned Night-heron is another. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

DU is one of the largest private conservation organizations in the United States. By conserving high-quality wetland habitat for wintering ducks, these projects also create important habitat for migratory shorebirds, ibis, herons, and more.

The private wetlands I visited were working properties with agriculture or cattle (or crawfish ponds in one instance). Flocks of Blue-winged Teal were in abundance on the ponds and White and Glossy Ibis, White Pelicans, Tricolored Herons, and much more was there for us to admire.

My "North with the Spring"transport, ready for the next stop in southern Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

My “North with the Spring”transport, ready for the next stop in southern Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Next stop, Southern Louisiana!


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #4: High Island Ho!

Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Snowy Egret and Roseate Spoonbill, two beautiful species breeding in a rookery on High Island, Texas. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

By Bruce Beehler

3 April 2015, Blog #4 of my North with the Spring journey:

My latest trip took me from the cotton fields and swamp country of Louisiana to the prairie and cattle region of southeastern Texas—all in about six hours.

I admit I was in a bit of a hurry … after all, meeting the birds on High Island was to be a highlight of my North with the Spring adventure!

High Island: Woodlots of Small Songbirds

My destination was a small salt dome island isolated from the prairie mainland of east Texas by a broad swath of spartina grass saltmarsh. The island is something of a southern beach resort, being right on the Gulf of Mexico. It also leads to the famous barrier island that is Bolivar Peninsula.

The Golden-winged Warbler is a species one could expect to see on High Island, although they arrive later in April. I’ll make to make a return visit to see this one. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

The Golden-winged Warbler is a species one could expect to see on High Island, although they arrive later in April. I’ll make to make a return visit to see this one. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

High Island itself is famous among birders for its small patches of oak woods that act as songbird migrant “traps.”

Laboring across the Gulf waters coming north in the spring, the small songbirds arrive on land after their perilous overwater flight and happily drop down into these small woodlots to feed, drink, rest, and regroup.

In doing so, the birds make themselves readily observable by the birders who wander the winding sylvan trails. It’s a wonderful way to see these normally elusive birds up close.

The Woodland Reserves

There are several nice reserves on High Island, including Boy Scout Woods, Hooks Woods, Smith Oaks, Red Bay Sanctuary, and Eubanks Woods. Each offers important shelter to migrating birds on the way northward.

Great Crested Flycatcher was one of the migrants making use of the wooded reserves on High Island. Photo by Ralph Wright.

Great Crested Flycatcher was one of the migrants making use of the wooded reserves on High Island. Photo by Ralph Wright.

Owned and operated by Houston Audubon and the Texas Ornithological Society, these sanctuaries are the focus of an annual springtime pilgrimage by birders from all over North America, who come in hopes of seeing a songbird “fall-out” in the spring.

Black-and-white Warbler was one of several migrants we saw at High Island, along with Great Crested Flycatcher, Red-eyed Vireo, and many Myrtle Warblers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Black-and-white Warbler was one of several species we saw at High Island, along with Red-eyed Vireo and many Myrtle Warblers. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

In a fall-out, large numbers of birds arrive in the afternoon and are present in abundance the following morning, making the lives of birders very happy indeed.

The problem is that a fall-out is an uncommon phenomenon, based on special weather conditions and difficult to anticipate. In fact, we had hoped for one—hence my hurry to High Island—but we were disappointed.

That, of course, is the challenge of birding!

Smith Oaks Reserve’s Amazing Rookery

If the migrant landbirds are sparse in the woodlots (as they were for me) one can travel to the heron rookery in the back of the Smith Oaks Reserve.

This is a guaranteed winner for birders and nature photographers, because there are hundreds of Great Egrets, Snowy Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Neotropic Cormorants perched in shrubbery just across a narrow water gap that is guarded by alligators (thus keeping out pesky predators that might otherwise consume the eggs of these breeding waterbirds).

Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Snowy Egrets were some of the birds I photographed at the Smith Oaks rookery: A true spring garden with living flowers. Photo by Aditi Desai.

Great Egrets, Roseate Spoonbills, and Snowy Egrets were some of the birds I photographed at the Smith Oaks rookery: A true spring garden with living flowers. Photo by Aditi Desai.

The color and noise is mind-blowing and the displays by both the spoonbills and the egrets have to be seen to be believed. This is a crowded city of beautiful birdlife, right there to be enjoyed.

Onward to Bolivar Peninsula

But wait, there’s more…. When things are slow on High Island, it is just a matter of driving a few miles down the coast along the Bolivar Peninsular to find mudflats crowded with scores of species of water birds—pelicans, herons, gulls, terns, godwits, avocets, curlews, plovers, oystercatchers, and more.

Terns, pelicans, skimmers, gulls … the coast was crowded with birds at Bolivar Flats. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Terns, pelicans, skimmers, gulls … the coast was crowded with birds at Bolivar Flats. Photo by Bruce Beehler.

Many of the birds are in large flocks, often at close range, especially when the tide is high and the birds are concentrated near the tide line. This site rivals that of the rookery but is ever-changing because of the tides and the seasons.

What a way to start a birding adventure, on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico!


Bruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.


The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.

“North with the Spring” #3: Finding Spring in Ivorybill Country

Sadly, there are no Ivorybill Woodpeckers left in Ivorybill country, but there are Ivorybill cousins, like this Pileated Woodpecker. Photo by Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.

Sadly, there are no Ivorybill Woodpeckers left in Ivorybill country, but there are plenty of Ivorybill cousins, like this Pileated. Photo by Orhan Cam/Shutterstock.

By Bruce Beehler

1 April 2015, Blog #3 of my North with the Spring journey:

I arrived at the lovely Lake Bruin State Park the evening of 30 March, having driven 1,000 miles from Bethesda, Maryland in two days. The park is sandwiched between the main flow of the mighty Mississippi (a half-mile to the east) and an old oxbow lake to the west—Lake Bruin.

Lake Bruin: A Birder’s Playground

The park, in rural northeastern Louisiana, is about 35 miles south-southeast of Vicksburg, Mississippi. This is home of the Tensas River, a place where Teddy Roosevelt came in 1907 to shoot a bear and ended up creating a public relations sensation: the “Teddy Bear.”

Fox Squirrel Lake Bruin LA, Photo by Bruce Beehler

Spotting Fox Squirrels at Lake Bruin in Louisiana. Photo by Bruce Beehler

Even more important, it is the last wild patch of low country where the last good-sized population of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers lived and nested back in the early 1940s. I wanted to visit that hallowed ground—a place I had first read about as a youngster in Arthur Cleveland Bent’s Life Histories of North American Woodpeckers.

Lake Bruin was a birder’s playground. When I wasn’t looking up at Red-headed Woodpeckers, I was marveling at the very vocal Barred Owls calling crazily before dark around the park’s verges.

Photo by Igor Kovalenko/Shutterstock

Barred Owl, a vocal species at Lake Bruin. Photo by Igor Kovalenko/Shutterstock

Loggerhead Shrikes sat on telephone wires just outside the park grounds. But I was here to get into the wilds.

Visiting the Last Ivory-billed Stronghold

The next morning I jumped in the car and headed out in search of the headquarters of the Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. You would think it easy to find such a thing, but this is rural country with lots of swamps and bending rivers and unmarked dirt roads. I had to drive back north up to Tallulah, then east to Quebec, then south….

Egret Rookery in Tensas River NWR. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I came across this displaying egret in a rookery at Tensas River National Wildlife Refuge. Photo by Bruce Beehler

In the end, it was worth the effort. The center sits at the edge of a bend of the Tensas River with mature bottomland forest all around. I met with Kelly Purkey and Shirley Whitney, two smart wildlife refuge staff who gave me all the details of the refuge’s natural history.

The visitor center sits right on the edge of Greenlea Bend, which held a territory of an Ivorybill in 1940. It and virtually all of the remaining ancient forest of the famous “Singer Tract” was cut-over in the latter half of the 1940s, and the great birds disappeared with the last of the great trees.

If there is some good news here, it is that the federal government and state bought up more than 70,000 acres of the Tensas River drainage and have managed it for nature and wildlife. In addition, I was told there was a patch of old-growth forest in a spot accessible by kayak—McGill Bend. Of course, I had to try to find it!

Finding Wilderness on the Tensas River

The following morning I headed out early to find a put-in on the Fool River that leads into the Tensas at McGill Bend. This was wonderful oak and sweet gum forest with a smidgen of cypress. I kayaked for three hours, scouting out the wilderness.

Prothonotary Warbler. Photo by Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock

I’m hearing the sounds of spring, including the songs of species like the Prothonotary Warbler. Photo by Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock

Gators moved about nervously, unsure of my kayak. Mississippi Kites passed overhead. Prothonotary Warblers and Northern Parulas sang from the wet verges. Carolina Wrens were everywhere in song. And the cousin of the Ivorybill—the majestic Pileated Woodpecker—was here in abundance, drumming, calling, sailing across the slow river.

Photo by Bruce Beehler

Kayaking in solitude on the Tensas River. Photo by Bruce Beehler

I saw not a single person on the Tensas, and I felt the wonder of place that was once America’s last wilderness.

I will be headed back there to tramp the forest…


Beehler Portrait Kaijende 2008 reducedBruce Beehler is an ornithologist, conservationist, and naturalist. He is currently a Research Associate in the Division of Birds at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, and is focused on research and writing about nature and natural history. Bruce has published ten books and authored dozens of technical and popular articles about nature. In 2007, Beehler was featured in a “60 Minutes” piece highlighting an expedition he led to the Foja Mountains in the interior of New Guinea in which scores of new species were discovered.

The North with the Spring journey is supported by American Bird Conservancy and Georgia-Pacific.